The Obsolete Palestinian Authority

Mahmoud Abbas ( a katz via Shutterstock)Mahmoud Abbas ( a katz via Shutterstock)

by Paul R. Pillar

The unique entity known as the Palestinian Authority (PA), created 25 years ago as a supposedly transitional structure, is well past its sell-by date. The anniversary earlier this year of the Oslo Accords, which established the PA, was an occasion to take stock of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The next 25 years is unlikely to see any more change in the state of this conflict than in the past 25 years, as long as the existing “peace process” edifice, of which the PA is a part, remains.

The PA receives tokens of diplomatic support from its sympathizers from time to time by being treated in some international organizations as if it were a state. During the most recent session of the United Nations General Assembly, for example, the Palestinian ambassador was elected president of the Group of 77, the largest bloc of less developed nations. But the PA plainly is not a state, and Palestine can never be a state as long as some other state occupies the territory where its would-be citizens live and exercises the most important functions of sovereignty in that territory.

Palestinians no doubt appreciate gestures such as the one the G-77 made, but that’s all they are: gestures. The Israeli government’s usual complaints about “unilateral” Palestinian moves are, of course, ridiculous when the moves involve actions by large multilateral bodies such as the General Assembly or G-77. But Israel will continue to complain while it makes its own genuinely unilateral moves, including expanding its colonization of the West Bank. Pretending that a goal such as self-determination has been achieved does not bring the accomplishment of the goal any closer. It may instead only sustain a rhetorical basis for preventing the goal from ever being realized.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, occasionally has threatened to dissolve the PA if the peace process continues to make no progress. But Abbas has never actually carried through on the threat and pulled the plug. Part of the reason is that the PA has evolved into a self-sustaining organization whose main day-to-day significance is as a source of employment for Palestinians.

Meanwhile, with each passing year the PA has less of a claim to represent the Palestinian people. Abbas is now in the fourteenth year of a four-year term to which he was elected in 2005. The most recent Palestinian legislative election—in which Hamas defeated Fatah—was in 2006.

The Palestinian Authority made sense as the temporary, transitional mechanism that the Oslo Accords envisioned. It does not make sense as a lingering monument to the failure of Oslo to lead to a real peace settlement. Dissolving the PA would be appropriate. The Palestine Liberation Organization—the Palestinian player at Oslo—would have to do the dissolving, and Abbas wears an additional hat as chairman of the PLO. His reluctance in the past to abolish one of the organizations he heads may endure. But dissolution would serve several useful purposes.

It would remove a false façade of the Israeli occupation and one of the bases for pretending it is not an occupation. In areas in which the PA supposedly is the principal local authority, it does not exercise the full functions of a sovereign. Even those areas are limited in size. In Oslo’s threefold division of the West Bank, Area A, which is supposed to be under PA administration, constitutes 18 percent of the West Bank. Area B, designated for joint Israel-Palestinian administration, is another 22 percent. In the remaining 60 percent, labeled Area C, Palestinians have no governing role at all.

Dissolution would distinguish what is temporary from what is justifiably permanent. It would give Palestinians an opportunity to retire old leadership. It would eliminate the technique—useful to the Israeli government and its supporters in kicking the can of Palestinian self-determination down the road indefinitely—of demanding “performance” from the Palestinians as a precondition for any progress toward statehood.

Most important, dissolving the Palestinian Authority would make Israelis feel more fully the costs of continued occupation. Such feeling is probably necessary for any breakthroughs toward peace. To the extent the PA performs real administration, it functions as an auxiliary to the occupation. If the full burden of occupation were instead to fall on Israel, indefinite occupation would no longer seem as comfortable and sustainable as it evidently seems to many Israelis now.

Subcontracting the burdens of maintaining dominance over Palestinian-inhabited territory is part of the strategy of the right-wing Israeli government for maintaining that dominance indefinitely. What the PA does in part of the West Bank, Hamas does in the Gaza Strip. The strategy helps to explain the recent decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to bomb Hamas into oblivion after a clandestine Israeli foray into Gaza went awry and led to an exchange of fire, even though right-wingers such as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned over the issue, tried to score political points by accusing Netanyahu of being soft on Hamas. Netanyahu was willing to lose some points to avoid the burden of Israel having to administer the Gaza Strip directly. It is far easier to maintain the blockade and to blame Hamas for the miserable conditions there.

Whatever practical challenges might ensue from the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority would be surmountable, as illustrated by the 26 years that Israel administered the occupied West Bank before there even was a Palestinian Authority.

It remains to be seen what effect the Trump administration’s “peace plan,” if it ever is announced, will have on any of this. If the plan is as heavily slanted against Palestinian interests as most every other decision the administration has made on this subject, then possibly it will provide Abbas with enough of a nudge finally to pull that plug.

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Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).

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One Comment

  1. I am impressed that this issue has been raised by Professor Paul Pillar, a 28 year American veteran of the CIA with direct responsibilities for Middle Eastern Affairs.

    This article has also significantly increased my considerable esteem for the author’s decency, honesty and integrity. He must have had a tough time advising his political masters whose policies on the region have lacked all sense of decency, fairness, honesty or integrity.

    I think he has been a little too polite using “obsolete” in the article title. Since Arafat’s death (possibly assasination), the PA has acted as a tool of Israeli occupation, providing a useful fig leaf for the sham “peace process” that has abetted the continous theft of Palestinian land.

    He has also been too kind describing the PA as a “self-sustaining organization whose main day-to-day significance is as a source of employment for Palestinians”. More accurately, the PA has for a long time provided well rewarded sinecures for a bunch of corrupt officials led by Mahmoud Abbas. No wonder he is in the 14th year of a 4 year term of office.

    Palestinians should face the long standing reality, drop the Don Quijotian quest for a never to be realized “2 state solution”, and fight for equal rights as citizens in the de facto single (Apartheid) state of Greater Israel.

    Perhaps the world would then pay proper attention to their plight by wider acceptance and support of the BDS movement, as with Apartheid South Africa.

    A single state and BDS is the only realistic solution for the Palestinians and what the Likudniks & the US fear most.

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